"Judicious absence is a weapon.""Make 'em laugh; make 'em cry; make 'em wait.""Sow an act and you reap a habit. Sow a habit and you reap a character. Sow a character and you reap a destiny.""The absent are like children, helpless to defend themselves.""The joys we expect are not so bright, nor the troubles so dark as we fancy they will be."
Charles Reade was born at Ipsden, Oxfordshire to John Reade and Anne Marie Scott-Waring. He studied at Magdalen College, Oxford, taking his B.A. in 1835, and became a fellow of his college. He was subsequently dean of arts and vice-president, taking his degree of D.C.L. in 1847. His name was entered at Lincoln's Inn in 1836; he was elected Vinerian Fellow in 1842, and was called to the bar in 1843. He kept his fellowship at Magdalen all his life, but after taking his degree he spent most of his time in London.
Reade began his literary career as a dramatist, and it was his own wish that the word "dramatist" should stand first in the description of his occupations on his tombstone. As an author, he always had an eye to stage effect in scene and situation as well as in dialogue. His first comedy, The Ladies' Battle, appeared at the Olympic Theatre in May 1851. It was followed by Angela (1851), A Village Tale (1852), The Lost Husband (1852), and Gold (1853). But Reade's reputation was made by the two-act comedy, Masks and Faces, in which he collaborated with Tom Taylor. It was produced in November 1852, and later was expanded into three acts. By the advice of the actress, Laura Seymour, he turned the play into a prose story which appeared in 1853 as Peg Woffington. He followed this up in the same year with Christie Johnstone, a close study of Scottish fisher folk. In 1854 he produced, in conjunction with Tom Taylor, Two Loves and a Life, and The King's Rival, and, unaided, The Courier of Lyons (well known under its later title, The Lyons Mail) and Peregrine Pickle. In the next year appeared Art, afterwards known as Nance Oldfield.
He made his name as a novelist in 1856, when he produced It Is Never Too Late to Mend, a novel written with the purpose of reforming abuses in prison discipline and the treatment of criminals. The truth of some details was challenged, and Reade defended himself vigorously. Five more novels followed in quick succession: The Course of True Love never did run Smooth (1857), Jack of all Trades (1858), The Autobiography of a Thief (1858), Love Me Little, Love Me Long (1859), and White Lies (1860), dramatized as The Double Marriage (1867).
In 1861 Reade produced what would become his most famous work, The Cloister and the Hearth. The story relates the adventures of the father of Erasmus, a subject he had dealt with two years before in a short story in Once a Week. It became recognised as one of the most successful historical novels. Returning from the 15th century to modern English life, he next produced Hard Cash (originally published as Very Hard Cash)(1863), in which he drew attention to the abuses of private lunatic asylums. Three more such novels followed: Foul Play (1869), in which he exposed the iniquities of ship-knackers, and paved the way for the labours of Samuel Plimsoll; Put Yourself in his Place (1870), in which he dealt with trade unions; and A Woman-Hater (1877), in which he continued his commentary on trade unions while also tackling the topic of women doctors. The Wandering Heir (1875), of which he also wrote a version for the stage, was suggested by the Tichborne Case.
Reade also produced three elaborate studies of character: Griffith Gaunt (1866), A Terrible Temptation (1871), A Simpleton (1873). The first of these was in his own opinion his best novel. At intervals throughout his literary career he sought to gratify his dramatic ambition, hiring a theatre and engaging a company for the representation of his own plays. An example of his persistency was seen in the case of Foul Play. He wrote this in 1869 in combination with Dion Boucicault with a view to stage adaptation. The play was more or less a failure; but he produced another version alone in 1877, under the title of A Scuttled Ship, and the failure was pronounced. His greatest success as a dramatist attended his last attempt--Drink--an adaptation of Emile Zola's L'Assommoir, produced in 1879. In that year his friend Laura Seymour, who had kept house for him since 1854, died. Reade's health failed from that time. On his death, he left behind him a completed novel, A Perilous Secret, which showed he was still skilled in the arts of weaving a complicated plot and devising thrilling situations. Reade was an amateur of the violin, and among his works is an essay on Cremona violins with the title, A Lost Art Revived.
Reade sub-titled a number of his novels "A matter-of-fact romance;" this referred to his practice of basing his novels largely on newspaper cuttings, which he began collecting for this purpose in 1848. He also conducted his own research, observing prisons personally, for example, as well as borrowing at times heavily from other novelists' works.
Reade's novels were popular, and he was among England's highest-paid novelists; however, many libraries refused to carry his works on the grounds that they were indecent.
Reade fell out of fashion by the turn of the century..."it is unusual to meet anyone who has voluntarily read him," wrote George Orwell in an essay on Reade...but during the 19th century Reade was one of England's most popular novelists. He was not, however, highly regarded by critics. The following assessment is typical:
A strong, healthy air of honest and high purpose breathes through nearly all the stories. An utter absence of cant, affectation, and sham distinguishes them. A surprising variety of descriptive power, at once bold, broad, and realistic is one of their great merit. Mr. Reade can describe a sea-fight, a storm, the forging of a horseshoe, the ravages of an inundation, the trimming of a lady's dress, the tuning of a piano, with equal accuracy and apparent zest. . . .
Indeed, Mr. Reade wants no quality which is necessary to make a powerful story-teller, while he is distinguished from all mere story-tellers by the fact that he has some great social object to serve in nearly everything he undertakes to detail. More than this I do not believe he is, nor, despite the evidences of something yet higher which were given in Christie Johnstone and The Cloister and the Hearth, do I think he ever could have been. He is a magnificent specimen of the modern special correspondent, endowed with the additional and unique gift of a faculty for throwing his report into the form of a thrilling story. But it requires something more than this, something higher than this, to make a great novelist whom the world will always remember. Mr. Reade is unsurpassed in the second class of English novelists, but he does not belong to the front rank. His success has been great in its way, but it is for an age and not for time.
Orwell sums up Reade's attraction as "the same charm as one finds in R. Austin Freeman's detective stories or Lieutenant-Commander Gould's collections of curiosities...the charm of useless knowledge," going on to say that
Reade was a man of what one might call penny-encyclopaedic learning. He possessed vast stocks of disconnected information which a lively narrative gift allowed him to cram into books which would at any rate pass as novels. If you have the sort of mind that takes a pleasure in dates, lists, catalogues, concrete details, descriptions of processes, junk-shop windows and back numbers of the Exchange and Mart, the sort of mind that likes knowing exactly how a medieval catapult worked or just what objects a prison cell of the eighteen-forties contained, then you can hardly help enjoying Reade.
During his career, the prolific Reade was involved in several literary feuds involving accusations of plagiarism. He strongly defended himself, but invoked standards on literary borrowing that are looser than those of today. Reade is frequently discussed in studies of evolving attitudes toward plagiarism.